There are over 1,700 public parks and green spaces in New York City, and they have never been more important than during the COVID pandemic. With much of the city locked down, our parks provided vital opportunities for exercise and meeting others safely. Even in normal times, public parks are good for our health. They protect biodiversity, improve our air quality, and contribute to climate resilience.
However, over a million New Yorkers don’t live within 10 minutes of a public park. Parks in our lower-income neighborhoods are less than half the size of those found in richer areas. And predominantly white neighborhoods have parks four times the size of those found in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
District 40 sits right beside Prospect Park and includes the adjacent Parade Ground, but lacks any other significant green space for its residents. The lack of parkland in District 40 is an issue that has troubled me for quite some time. District 40 is ranked 45th for the number of park & playground acres per 1,000 residents out of NYC’s 51 City Council Districts—we can and must do better. The current lack of accessibility to parks and green, open, public space in District 40, and Black and Brown communities as a whole, is totally unacceptable. It is for this reason that I support a city-wide study to determine where it’s most feasible to add green space in NYC. The study will take community input from various community stakeholders and will allow elected officials and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to make decisions that are as informed as possible. If elected, I will advocate aggressively for more public open green spaces throughout the city, especially in District 40, making sure to engage with local organizations and activists so that their opinion is taken into account in a meaningful way. I will oppose any and every effort to rezone parkland in any of NYC’s neighborhoods. Quality public parks should not just be accessible for the privileged or wealthy; they belong in all neighborhoods. We must also protect natural forested areas, as they are crucial for mitigating climate change.
Instead of investing more to address this inequality, the city government cut the parks budget by $80 million last year, destroying hundreds of jobs and leaving parks to rely on non-profits to fill the gap. These groups, however, are themselves expecting to lose over 30% of their revenues due to the pandemic. Moreover, while some well-known parks can raise revenue through donations, parks that are beloved by local residents but aren’t featured on tourist itineraries struggle to attract private funds.
The problems faced by our parks go far beyond day-to-day maintenance. On average, New York City’s parks are 74 years old and have gone 24 years without a major renovation. And as with access to parks, there is racial and economic inequity here as well, with parks in working-class communities renovated more rarely and less extensively.
With the pandemic and climate change reminding us all of the value of our parks, I believe this moment is a unique opportunity to reshape our city’s parks. Better parks can make New York City fairer, more sustainable and more resilient. Investing now into our parks would create high-quality, good-paying, green jobs – exactly the kinds of jobs that the Green New Deal envisions. More and better parks would beautify our neighborhood and give all people, regardless of neighborhood or background, opportunities to access culture and entertainment, to exercise, to breathe cleaner air, and to experience nature.
But more investment is not enough. We urgently need to create the position of a Director of the Public Realm, to champion not just our parks but all of the shared spaces that bring our communities together. Moreover, park staff must reach out to their local communities and ensure that local parks serve local needs in a way that is truly accessible to everyone.
Until recently, Prospect Park did not have a single entrance along most of its eastern side, all but prohibiting access to many local residents. It is right that this has now changed, with two new gates built along Flatbush Avenue, but much more needs to be done to ensure that every New Yorker has access to clean, safe and well-maintained public parks.
Rita Joseph is a Democrat and teacher at PS6 (Norma Adams Clemons Academy), running to represent District 40.
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